James Abram Garfield was born on November 19, 1831 in rural Cuyahoga Country, Ohio. Garfield was the youngest of the five children born to Abram and Eliza Ballou Garfield. The family's home was plain and simple, about thirty feet wide by twenty feet long, and was the most recent stop in the Garfield family's two century odyssey in America. Edward Garfield had arrived and settled in Massachusetts in 1630–almost 200 years before James was born. James Garfield's great-grandfather had fought in the Revolution and his grandfather had moved the family to Worcester, New York. Garfield's mother Eliza traced her roots back even further. Garfield's parents met when they were both children, and when his mother moved West to Ohio, his father followed her and proposed. After trying in vain to capitalize on Ohio's expanding canal network, Garfield's father moved his growing family to Orange. Later, his stepbrother would join them in a settlement so remote that when Garfield was born there was only one neighbor within seven miles.
Garfield's father caught pneumonia and died in May, 1833, but his mother worked hard to keep the family farm. James's brother, Thomas, helped hold the family together, and stayed at home until he married at young age of thirty. Although uneducated herself, Eliza Garfield encouraged James to learn and ask questions. She remarried in 1842, but the marriage failed and she found that she succeeded on her own quite well. Eliza Garfield supported her family with knitting, weaving and spinning, but they never had much money or material possessions. On Sundays, Eliza Garfield and her children walked three miles to attend church, and when James was old enough for schooling, she allowed the town to build a schoolhouse on the edge of the property. Garfield was an excellent student, excelling at spelling and reading. On January 1, 1848, when he was 16, Garfield began to keep a journal, which he kept, with few interruptions, for the rest of his life.
Shortly after, Garfield set out on his own. He took a job chopping wood at his uncle's Lake Erie farm. At Lake Erie, Garfield developed a desire to work on the water and found a job with a cousin leading a team of horses that pulled canal boats along the Ohio and Pennsylvania Canal. Garfield loved the work and eventually was promoted to bowman on the boat itself. One night, however, Garfield fell overboard and, since he was unable to swim, began to sink. He managed to pull himself aboard, but began to reflect that God might have other plans for him. Just a couple of weeks later, Garfield fell sick with malaria and returned home. His recovery encouraged him to continue his education and on March 6, 1849 he left home for the Geauga Seminary in nearby Chester, Ohio.